Query Letters: How to Catch a Literary Agent’s Eye


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By Lindsey Hall, Associate Publicist

Having previously spent time in the inner dwellings of a literary agency, and spending most of those days curled up with the agency inbox curtailing the infamous “slush pile,” I want to share with aspiring authors how to hone those magical queries that will illuminate in the shadows of the many, (and I mean many) entries agencies receive each week.

Below are five tips to allure (or repel) your way into an agent’s heart:

1. Superfluous use of Adjectives in your Query Letter:

For the sake of time and your tired, cramped, submission-sending fingers– save your word of the day for your novel. They know your book is essentially like your child. It is your budding offspring, your inner darkness, your… Well, you get the picture. What I mean to say is that agents know how much this tale means to you. Hey, they’re storytellers too, just on a different side of things. They want to see the same type of lyrical beauty in your words that you saw when you envisioned them on a page. They want to experience the “raw emotion” and the “tender romance,” but it’s kind of like when your friend takes too many Instagram selfies.

Yes, we know she’s pretty. But there’s something innately off-putting in having it fed to you so verbosely. Let agents find the beauty in your story without feeling like it’s obvious. Coax them into your world in a way that makes them feel like they opened the door without it opening for them.

Every agent is looking for that “diamond in the rough.”


2.  Typos, Misspelling, and the Incorrect Use of “There,” “Their,” and “They’re:”

Yes, we notice. Yes, we cringe. And yes we’ve done the same– but keep in mind that quite often you will have various sets of eyes on your query letter before the manuscript ever gets read. Let me fill you in on a little secret– assistants, interns, and all other literary agent lackeys are on sharp alert when looking through the infamous “slush pile.” Remember, we also want to be agents one day. We want to develop that knack to find the next “50 Shades” or “Harry Potter,” so we keep our eyes more peeled than the average agent. We will judge it like a cheerleader judging a backbend. Take great care in the presentation of your letter and have another set of eyes look over it before you push send.

Make sure you learn the correct usage of “to,” “too,” and “two,” too.


3.  Don’t Build Me Up Buttercup: Using the Phrase “I respect you/your agency/your work.”

While everyone understands the necessity to schmooze, hone in on the flattery that makes sense. While this admittedly takes more time than you want to put into sending an unsolicited query letter, try to understand that agents are realistic people– they know you’re sending your query letter to each and every agency that you think might take a gander. They know you respect those agents too. However, it never hurts to mention a book that was previously contracted by that specific agent you’re pitching, and add a quick synopsis of how you believe your book fits into their wheelhouse. They notice that. You’ve made their life easier essentially by giving them a comparison. (Something I’ll get to in a moment…)

Do not be transparent– They will think the same of whatever you wrote.


4. The phrase “I’ve had an interesting life and want to share it.”

Notable deal-killer. In a batch of somewhere between 30-40 email queries a day, I’m going to take an estimate that nearly 2/3 of them were memoir proposals.Yes, life is interesting. Yes, you have a good story. But the problem with unsolicited memoirs is that oftentimes the author is so invested in their story (because it’s their story) that they lose the reader along the way. The relevant information gets tangled in the details of a life.

The reason behind this is simple: our stories are personal. More personal than our most far-out fiction because when we are writing about our life, we are essentially creating our past, defining it, and validating it. And that’s a vulnerable place to be. Nobody wants to feel like their past isn’t valid enough for a story, so what I often saw was that the author became so wrapped up in the details of their life that they couldn’t quite decide which parts were the most important to share.

If you have a memoir story, propose that story. They do not need to know that you fell down and skinned your knee in the 8th grade if you’re writing about a lurid love affair in Spain.

Keep your details relevant, memoir or not.


5. Market your book by… Marketing your book

In a world where you can upload, reload, or download, one has to come to terms with just how mass the market is in the year 2014. (And don’t even get me started on the YA genre… Thanks John Green and Rainbow Roswell.)

If everything I’ve stated before has you rolling your eyes sighing “that’s obvious,” then this should be the one piece of advice you take away.

One of the first things I learned at the agency was how to properly evaluate a proposal. I walked into that office my first day- dreams of plot critiques and character edits- swimming through my mind, and was immediately turned to panic when my boss sat me down and asked me to read a proposal and then write a “marketing platform evaluation” of it.

“A whaaaa…?” I thought. But I learned. Sadly, I learned.

This is a business, like everything else. Yes, they’re looking for that diamond in the rough– but that diamond also has to fit a lot of different fingers. I can remember nights sitting at my desk reading the first 25 pages of a story, enjoying the dialogue and enjoying the characters, only to realize that upon evaluation, four books with an almost identical plot (cough, vampires, cough) had been published that same year.

Agents sell their projects to editors. Editors are tired. They’re busy. They’re overworked, underpaid, and if your proposal is a near replica of a New York Times bestseller that covered the same topic, but with an inch more intrigue, they are going to turn it down.

With people able to publish their work pretty much wherever they please, every topic gets covered– and by covered, I mean covered like the amount of hummus you put on a chip. It’s doused– You need to know that when you’re pitching the concept. Do not tell them there is nothing out there that compares to what you’ve written, because I promise you there is. And they will find it.

Show them what compares to your story. And then turn around and show them how your tale can be different and still fit in the same niche. And please do not tell them your book is going to be the next “Fad Diet…Twilight… The Fault in Our Stars…”

They want enthusiasm, but this is a business deal as well. Keep your dreams practical. You may just have the next best thing, but everyone knows that even some of the most famous literature in the world took decades to ever get the notoriety it deserved. Be practical or they’re going to doubt your abilities. It’s like a job interview essentially: show them your professional side, and that little bit of eagerness that makes a boss grin.

Make an impression by doing your homework. It’s only natural that you become more attractive to someone if they think you already have a solid foundation in place. Include notable endorsements (if you have them), include what age group you are trying to reach, include the aspects of your life that will make you attractive to a marketer– because, after all, this is a business as well.

Do your homework and you will come out ahead.


Related: A Branded Author For Life


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